India will kick start one of the world’s largest coronavirus inoculation campaigns, aimed at stemming the spread of a disease that has infected 10.4 million people within its borders and plunged its economy into recession.
Starting Jan. 16, the South Asian nation will start administering the first shots of a Covid-19 vaccine on nearly 30 million healthcare workers and other frontline staff most vulnerable to the infection, according to the health ministry.
The vaccination program will cover another 270 million people, including senior citizens and those with co-morbidities in the following phase, according to the release.
All eyes will now be on the pace with which India’s fragmented and stratified health networks can deliver the shots across the country of more than 1.3 billion people. Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposing one of the world’s strictest lock downs in March last year, India is now home to the second-highest outbreak globally.
That was fueled in part by the movement of millions of work-starved laborers who evacuated India’s urban centers, spreading Covid-19 to many of their home villages across an enormous hinterland with poor to non-existent health facilities. The high infection rate has also kept the government from fully reopening the economy, which is set for its biggest annual contraction noted in records going back to 1952.
New Delhi has drawn up plans to vaccinate 300 million people in the first stage of deployment, starting with front-line workers, the vulnerable and those over the age of 50 -- a process that will take at least three to four months, according to government experts. It will draw on extensive existing networks used to vaccinate tens of millions of new borns each year against diseases such as polio.
However, public confidence in Covid vaccines has been dented by the controversial emergency nod granted to Bharat Biotech International Ltd.’s Covaxin soon after new year’s day. The shot, which has been partly financed by India’s government, has yet to clear final-stage human trials. Days after its approval the firm’s management traded barbs over vaccine safety with the chief executive of its leading rival: the Serum Institute of India Ltd., AstraZeneca PLC’s local partner.
A survey of Indian citizens conducted after the restricted authorization to both vaccines found that 69% remained hesitant about getting Covid-19 jabs and wouldn’t rush to get them immediately -- the same level as December before the regulatory nods.
Poor communication in India has “led to a level of distrust building amongst citizens,” according to LocalCircles, the New Delhi-based pollster that received 8,723 responses to a question about vaccine hesitancy. Many Indians don’t believe enough information is “available when it comes to vaccine side-effects, efficacy, etc. from trials, which combined with declining case loads in India are top reasons why people are becoming hesitant.”
The government’s top scientific adviser, K. VijayRaghavan, has urged the public to get incoulated and said on Jan. 7 both vaccines were safe. Home to a huge vaccine manufacturing hub, India also “has a great responsibility to deliver to the world,” he said.
“We must start vaccination on scale very rapidly and very widely,” VijayRaghavan said. “This has not been tried anywhere in the world -- this is a huge effort, we must appreciate that it takes time to deploy.”